Tuesday, November 30, 2010

C.S. Giscombe's Emancipation of the Dissonance

The latest issue of Cincinnati Review is out, and it includes my essay "Emancipation of the Dissonance: The Poetry of C.S. Giscombe."  The essay surveys Giscombe's career, and starts like this:


The title of C.S. Giscombe's book of prose poems, Prairie Style, calls to mind the school of architecture that first fluttered to life in the Midwest at the end of the nineteenth century; reached its flat-roofed zenith in Frank Lloyd Wright's work during the First World War; and passed out of favor after the mid 1920s. But if the title makes us try to draw an analogy between Giscombe's art and Wright's, it misleads us. A better analogy comes if we look to what the more advanced musical talents were up to while Wright was drafting blueprints in Oak Park. Consider Arnold Schoenberg's reflections, from the 1926 essay "Opinion or Insight," on the direction classical music had taken for composers of his generation. "Until our own time," wrote Schoenberg, "composers were always extremely cautious about how the succession of harmonies were arranged, at times even carrying things to the point of using only harmonies whose relationship to the tonic and their 'accessibility' to it (further underlined by convention) was easy to grasp." Harmonies were always structured in relation to a dominant pitch, and the attentive, or even semi-attentive, listener could hear the coherence of the music. Over time, though, "the proportion of elements pointing to the tonic became ever smaller, as against those pointing away from it," ultimately leading to what Schoenberg called "the emancipation of the dissonance" — that is, to a kind of atonal composition where dissonance "came to be placed on an equal footing with sounds regarded as consonances." Giscombe's Prairie Style is, in some significant sense, as atonal as the music of Schoenberg: it creates moments of coherence, but also welcomes moments of dissonance, when the expository eloquence of sentences and paragraphs falls apart.

Musical audiences often want to know just why a composer would abandon tonality, and composers in the atonal tradition have given a number of answers, many having to do with the hatred of cliché and the need to renew conventions. A deeper answer, though, and one more analogous to what I take to be Giscombe's motives, comes from one of the last great atonal composers, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen said that his refusal to give his compositions clarity, wholeness, and accessible coherence by subordinating the parts to a dominant tonality was in essence a reflection of his ethical stance. To take the elements of music and "use them all with equal importance," rather than subordinating some to others, was nothing less than "a spiritual and democratic attitude toward the world." Stockhausen would no more subordinate musical parts to the whole than he would sacrifice individual lives to an abstract cause, or expropriate one person's labor for the benefit of another. For Stockhausen, the emancipation of musical dissonance is, at a formal level, a kind of parallel to the emancipation of the oppressed in the world. It doesn't actually free anyone, of course, but it exemplifies a way of thinking that could have larger ethical implications.

Giscombe's emancipation of narrative dissonance has goals similar to those of Stockhausen, and gains a great deal of weight and significance by addressing questions of race via unconventional means.


The rest of the essay (ending with a Duke Ellington quote I've wanted to use for years) is available in Cincinnati Review Vol. 7 #2, Winter 2011.


  1. Bob,

    I like Giscombe's work. Just a couple thoughts.

    The Marxist English composer Cornelius Cardew once wrote a book titled Stockhausen: Servant of Imperialism (or something close to that), wherein he argued that atonal music both reflected and compounded social alienation. Granted, he was a Maoist, and the book is fairly funny in its Stalinist histrionics.

    Still, this notion you somewhat offhandedly toss out, of "atonality" or "dissonance" as consanguineous with emancipatory values is (while certainly pleasant to entertain) a bit distressed, to say the least. Kindred, of course, is the deeply assimilated meme in our circles (roughly since Jerome McGann, in Critical Inquiry, wrote the first big academic article on Language poetry) that some kind of progressive, liberating energy inheres in non-syllogistic poetic forms. (Giscombe's "ethical" belief, too, apparently, and one you appear to endorse...)

    Well, no need to rehearse Jameson in possible riposte! (Just saying.)

    One other quibble, this one quite minor: You say Stockhausen was the "last great atonal composer." But Boulez, for one, is still alive.

  2. Because of what I do, the "prairie" here caught my attention right off the bat, but....Come on! Give us the quote from the Duke!

  3. I'd kind of like to put the whole essay up here, but I wrote it on commission for the good people at the Cincinnati Review, so I think it wouldn't be right. (Give the Duke quote? But that's my teaser to send you to the magazine!).

    Anyway, about the supposed emancipatory power of dissonance -- I'm no Stockhausen, and I thought I qualified the claim a bit ("It doesn't actually free anyone, of course, but it exemplifies a way of thinking that could have larger ethical implications."). I suppose that there is a kind of dissonance that tries, and sometimes succeeds, in pointing in a particular ethical direction. But (as I tried to argue in an essay on Prynne and associated poets) it is easy to exaggerate the political power of such moves.

    As for what I appear to endorse -- well, I'm trying to -describe- Giscombe's project. It's strange -- when I tried to describe Yvor Winters' project, I got slapped upside the head for endorsing it, and slapped on the other side of the head for not endorsing it. I'm not naive enough to believe that absolute disinterest is possible. But there are times when I try to approach it as much as possible. I suppose I endorse those attempts at disinterest as one of the valid modes of criticism.



  4. This makes me curious to read the essay. The substitution of atonality for Prairie Style kinda works rhetorically here, but it's almost unimaginable in the reverse direction. That is, if we imagine Giscombe to have started with the idea of the equality of the tones, or (not quite the same thing) the emancipation of the dissonance, by what process could he have decided to symbolize it with the title "Prairie Style"?